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This summer, Eurostar is running a Saturday service right across France to Aix-en-Provence. This is the farthest a direct train has ever travelled from London, covering 750 miles in just over six hours.
But it’s the psychological distance between stepping on in King’s Cross and off in Aix that really counts. It isn’t just that the Mediterranean weather is likely to be better. There’s something about the play of light and shade on the honey and pastel buildings and on the streets lined with plane trees. You’ll start to feel as if you’re walking around in a painting by Cézanne, the city’s most famous son, even before you visit his remarkably preserved studio and realise quite how much inspiration he took from the local surroundings.
So treat yourself to a pastis in a street-side cafe on the Cours Mirabeau. Tune in to the steady murmur of intellectual conversation or, better still, eavesdrop on the posturing and plans for youthful high jinks, the hallmarks of one of France’s foremost university towns. Take advantage of the surprisingly vibrant nightlife. Tuck into the local aïoli, olive oil and speciality chocolates. Stroll out through the woods to the craggy slopes of Mont St Victoire, a favourite subject of Picasso as well as of Cézanne. You’ll never want to leave – but this summer at least, you must.
Aix has a decent share of exhibitions and shows in the Provence-wide celebration of Marseille’s status as this year’s European Capital of Culture, but the real action is in the port city, 30 minutes away by train.
Like Liverpool, Marseille has used its Capital of Culture status to launch a massive push for regeneration; and here, too, it seems to be working. The old port can now hold its own against any world city. Once-crumbling blocks of apartments are suddenly spruce, beloved landmarks have been polished up, seedy waterfronts reclaimed. Tourists are already flocking around – and under – l’Ombrière, Norman Foster’s sleek, mirrored sunshade and events pavilion in the Vieux Port. Meanwhile, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, which opens next month, promises to be nothing short of spectacular.
Of course, this being Marseille, a few questions have been asked about the €550m (£460m) that has been spent so far. The run-up to the festivities has generated some horrific stories of police corruption and gangland killings, while the construction work has thrown the city’s already rather too exciting roads into yet more chaos. In other words (again like Liverpool), Marseille has retained its unique character throughout. This has always been one of the most invigorating, exciting and cosmopolitan cities in France. Add to that a packed programme of open-air concerts, exhibitions, artistic happenings and, intriguingly, a guided eyes-closed tour of the city, and even the 200mph Eurostar won’t feel as if it’s getting you there fast enough.